Occasionally a book arrives that is so strange, so obscure, so crouched and brooding and – in the final analysis – mystifying, that you cannot begin to know what to make of it. Exhibit A: Jennifer Mills’ The Airways.
Some of my bafflement lies, I think, in Mills’ storytelling. For Mills, sensory apprehension becomes the novel itself. Her mode is like the anti-Herzog: recall how the physical perceptions of Saul Bellow’s titular protagonist are cordoned off as intermissions in his primary journey, a remembrance of things past, the psychological communion with exes, friends, family and nemeses. Virginia Woolf’s The Waves takes a similar approach. These narratives are less interested in where the characters might physically be travelling than in where their mental associations take them. The Airways is unusual in being hyper-focused on the journeys of its two main characters.
Greek–Australian Adam, 27, lives aimlessly in Beijing. He is afflicted by a mysterious illness, or sense of haunting. Four years earlier, we learn, he (seemingly) assaulted a non-binary student, Yun, with whom he lived in Sydney. Chapters alternate between Adam’s life in Sydney leading up to the event and his present in Beijing, alongside Yun’s disembodied voice, which takes possession of various bodies in its journey to seek out Adam.
In the chapters from Yun’s perspective, every aberration in the atmosphere is noticed, every mote and waver. If a dog barks, a paragraph or two can be profitably spent describing it. The effect is comparable to Alain Robbe-Grillet; but whereas Robbe-Grillet was programmatic and architectural, concerned to avoid anything conspicuously “literary” in the Balzac/Stendhal sense, Mills is more prose-poetic, intensely focused on the sensory. Yun’s name, homophonic in Chinese with “transport”, recalls their movement from body to body, as well as clouds, those seemingly solid yet vaporous substances – or another uncertain substance: fate. They are a “phoretic organism” employing “human forms for strategic dispersal, seeking out the rare host in which they might transform”.
Adam’s narrative, too, is microfocused. We are told he wears lambskin (fake), and is haunted by visions of a fox, suggesting “an animal innocence, hardly aware of itself as predator, as prey”. He considers himself a “good guy”, though this will change in Beijing as he becomes increasingly haunted, marked by “a wound that ached and would not close”. Christian imagery recurs: visions of the underworld via Beijing’s guijie (Ghost Street); a train in which he is possessed by Yun, “a looping creature, a curved snake circling back into itself”; Adam/Yun’s longing to “bite into a crisp apple”; even a playful reference to “Little Apple”, the Chinese pop song that went viral in 2014; the lambskin; and, of course, his name.
There are suggestions Adam has been haunted for some time, with disturbances beginning in childhood. Experiences of sleep paralysis have taught him the body’s vulnerability. This sense of physical abjection feels markedly Gothic, recalling 19th-century tales of the fantastic such as Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”, with its invocations of mesmerism, sleep paralysis and the liminality between life and death. There are multiple plays upon the idea of visitation: illness as foreign body, Adam as foreign body and visitor, Yun as ghostly visitant, city and body designed as organisms “accommodat[ing] the anomaly”. Yun’s haunting acts as a reminder that Adam is, if not himself a ghost, then certainly someone who has been, in an all-too-real sense, ghosted.
Another referent is Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s 19th-century satire “The Very Image”. As Italo Calvino describes it, the story is “a double description of Parisian locales that establishes an extremely simple equation between the world of business (a cafe near the stock exchange) and the world of the dead (a room in a funeral hall)”. Or, as Mills has it, “... in order to escape from the worries of a harassing life, most of them had murdered their bodies, hoping in that way to obtain a little more comfort”.
The Airways’ gestures to violence against women and non-binary people suggest a book club topicality the novel isn’t particularly invested in. Its greater goal is the depiction of reality-estrangements, descriptions of mundane things and events rendered unfamiliar: blood and the “traffic of its tiny appointments”; the body’s “delicate machinery” that is “complex and improbable and necessary”. Yet – as Adam Rivett remarked of Mills’ second novel, Gone, with its persistent focus on the immediate – “at length there is something almost bullying about it; too much of the body’s present concerns [...] not enough of the wandering mind”.
The Airways’ evocations of dislocation and dissociation, rigged to accommodate the potential of some vague, indefinable sense of significance, feel self-conscious and freighted. Its hyper-awareness and surround-sound perception have the reclusive compulsivity of Emily Dickinson: the wider world becomes a hermetic box, a sensorium of smells and sounds, claustrophobic as the fly’s buzz. This circuitry is less successful than exhausting; a truth so slant it threatens to topple all readerly investment. Everything seems tricked-out, called upon to carry multiple resonances. But then anything kept vague enough can: and The Airways is nothing if not vague.
Mills explores the persistence of memory, violence and dislocations of almost every conceivable variety: geographical, ethnic, physical, mental, gendered. Every sentence is opaquely loaded, often with more than it can be reasonably expected to convey. The result is to make the reader aware of just how thin the line between profundity and pretension can be. The difference, I think, is one of specificity: profundity requires it; pretension can comfortably go without.
Picador, 384pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 7, 2021 as "The Airways, Jennifer Mills".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.